Take a deep breath. Now read this sentence:
‘The development of our strategic goals is to be achieved through a combination of cross-platform brand synergy and outside-the-box solutioneering that will produce desirable outcomes while providing dynamic solutions to our entire client base.’
We’ve all come across professional writing like this. Writing that makes us dig our fingernails into our palms in an effort to stay conscious. Reports that don’t seem to be reporting anything except ‘Hey! Jargon is Still Awesome!’ PowerPoints that are seriously lacking in both Power and Point. Websites where ‘URL’ is simply the noise you make when you’re trying to read them.
But what makes people write like this? Why would a person sit down to pour his or her soul out and instead end up spewing waffle and management speak? Are they stupid?
There are actually quite a few reasons why people write badly. And stupidity is very much NOT one of them:
1) They were never taught to write well.
In days gone by, schoolchildren had to spend large chunks of their time learning the rules of grammar and punctuation. Kids would be hauled up in front of their classmates and made to parse a sentence on the blackboard, drawing an elaborate tree that mapped out the subject, verb phrase, object and all kinds of sub-clauses.
If you were posh enough, these sentences were even in Latin.
This practice has now largely fallen by the wayside. The cold, hard gruel of technical literacy has been replaced by warmer, fuzzier activities aimed at cultivating a love of reading and writing.
THIS IS A GOOD THING. How many kids had their creativity crushed out of them as they went through the old system? How many boys and girls stepped down from the blackboard, wiping away tears of frustration with chalky fingers, filled with the knowledge that the English language was not something with which they were prepared to tangle?
But the disappearance of writing instruction from our schools has also stopped people from taking care and paying attention when they sit down to write. A first draft or late-night brain dump is all too often sent out into the world as if it were Good to Go. And we, the readers, we’re all left to just deal with the consequences. Instead of Dead Poets’ Society, we get writing that is merely Dead.
2) They don’t know enough about their subject.
Picture yourself in a job interview – you are asked a question on a subject you know nothing about. The question feels important. The panel leans forward to hear your answer.
And so, you start talking.
The words start to flow, but you’re not saying anything. You are engaged in a verbal tap-dance to hide the fact that you have no idea what the question was about.
A lot of bad writing is in this vein. It fills the page, but the writer is papering over the cracks in their knowledge. They are hoping that the reader might be so impressed with the quantity of words that we will fail to notice their quality. The less they know, the more they write.
3) They know way too much about their subject.
The converse can also be true. Like a pub bore hitting his stride, a writer will shamelessly hold forth on his pet topic without pausing to ask himself if the reader is still with him. (Gendered pronoun not entirely chosen at random.)
When writing for a specialised audience, this can sometimes work. But even the nerdiest specialist is still a human being, and nobody wants to be bombarded with dense jargon, arcane minutiae and unexplained abbreviations.
Please…Let us catch a breath. Give the uninitiated a fighting chance of following what you have to say. You don’t have to dumb it down, but at least try to meet people half way. To do otherwise is just plain rude – and we, the unlucky readers, shouldn’t stand for it. Like the child gazing upon the naked Emperor, we must feel empowered to stand up and say he’s naked.
‘Oi! Rude person!’ we must cry, ‘You think you’re communicating, but you’re not! You’re just going on and on without saying anything! The door is locked and we are on opposite sides! Let us in!’
4) They are trying to impress someone.
If your boss likes what you’ve written, you must surely have done a good job. Right?
Well, not necessarily. If your boss is a phenomenal writer, then yes, they are someone you should strive to impress. But you don’t necessarily get put in charge because you’re a good writer.
So we often end up with a situation where a lowly writer might take a chance on a more creative approach to something – something daring and playful and engaging – and then they’ll catch themselves and say ‘Wait a sec, my boss is not going to like this. I’d better rewrite it the way S/HE writes. That’s sure to go down better.’ And so they self-edit. They water it down. They play it safe. And we are forever deprived of whatever sparkling gem that callow young minion WANTED to write. And the world is made a little duller. A little greyer.
It is only human to try to mirror the language cues of the person we’re talking to. If we’re talking to a young child, we’ll use a bit of Baby Talk. If we’re talking to someone from another country, we might use simple words and sentence structures they are likely to understand. If we’re flirting with someone else, our speech patterns might come to resemble theirs.
And what is a boss if not a baby from another country who we have to flirt with?
5) They are scared.
Related to (2) above. A lot of bad writing is a product of fear. To write, especially publicly or professionally, is to put yourself out there. It is to stick your neck out and make a clear declaration. It is not a million miles away from that other well-worn nightmare staple: making a public speech.
We human beings are a pretty self-conscious bunch. We have all experienced rejection at some time or another, and in the professional realm rejection often means more than just ridicule – it could mean being passed over for promotion, denied a raise or even Let Go in the next reshuffle.
So there really is every incentive for a writer to hide behind their words rather than waving them proudly skyward. If someone is tasked with writing their company’s annual report, the more anonymous they make it, the better – especially if the company had a bad year. ‘Business conditions in FY14 were broadly unfavourable,’ means the same as, ‘Guys, this was a crappy year,’ but it somehow leaves the writer feeling less exposed. Those waffle words, sometimes they’re as comforting and delicious as actual waffles.
6) They read way too much bad copy.
The business world is a huge echo chamber. Everyone’s going to the same conferences and reading the same white papers and subscribing to the same industry publications and e-zines. We’re all just so…wonderfully…connected.
One adverse side-effect of this connection is homogeneity. Clinging together in the choppy waters of enterprise, we’ve all drifted so far away from the shores of sense and meaning that we’ve completely lost sight of land. We read what we write and we write what we read. And on and on it goes.
Every once in a while we might read something that catches our attention, or that seems a little…special. But by its very definition that thing is an oddity, an outlier, and only serves to strengthen the status quo. The chatty, engaging corporate voice of Innocent smoothies (to pluck an obvious example) is just the exception that proves the rule. ‘I wish I was allowed to write that way,’ we think, ‘But I don’t work for Innocent, so I’d better not.’
7) They don’t think of themselves as creative.
‘Oh, I’m not really a very creative person.’ This really is an actual sentence that some people actually say. About themselves! I know it sounds crazy, but it really does happen. And not only do they say it, but they actually THINK it, too.
This very same person who helped their child build an imaginary space station in the garden on the weekend. This person who can turn the uninspiring contents of their fridge into a delicious meal. This person who sings in a community choir. This person who looks around the Tube train and imagines weird and wonderful stories about the various faces they see. This person who has the strangest dreams every night but never quite manages to write them down on waking.
We all have the capacity to be creative. We just don’t all have structures in place or corporate cultures that tell us that it’s OK to express ourselves.
Words are like Lego blocks. There is virtually no limit to the ways in which we can arrange them. And yet rather than dumping the whole bucket onto the floor and devising new designs and structures, too many writers patiently follow the step-by-step directions and end up making exactly the same thing as everyone else. And lo and behold, everything is not awesome.
So what can we do, as writers, to avoid the slump into badness? We can cut the crap. We can try speaking our words out loud. We can recognise that if something bores or confuses us, it is likely to bore or confuse our reader. We can read more poetry and maybe inject a bit of it into our professional communications.
We can write like human beings. Readers the world over will be undyingly thankful.
Can you identify any other reasons why people write badly? If so, please share them below...